My Family Recipe

Great-Grandma’s Cinnamon Pull-Apart Cake, Pieced Together by Taste Memory

October 15, 2019
Photo by Rocky Luten. Food Stylist: Anna Billingskog. Prop Stylist: Brooke Deonarine.

Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish that's meaningful to them and their loved ones.


As a cookbook author, I make a living translating the work of the kitchen to the page. In a very real way, my livelihood rests on the power of the written recipe. And yet, when I’m being fully honest, I know that the best way to learn to cook is in the kitchen, watching someone else brown the onions, measure out flour (or not, as is often the case), and fold dough just so. It is there, most often next to a family member or other beloved person, that the craft and pleasures of cooking are passed down through the generations.

But I, like so many others, never had the chance to learn at my ancestors’ knees, watching wide-eyed from my perch on the kitchen counter. My grandparents on my mother’s side passed away before I came along. And my father’s mother (the only grandparent I ever met) died when I was 8—long before I had any real interest in the possibilities of a wooden spoon.

And so it is with aranygaluska, the Ashkenazi-Jewish take on monkey bread. You take bits of yeasted dough, roll them in melted butter, coat them in cinnamon-sugar, and pack everything into a tube or Bundt pan, yielding a tender pull-apart cake that fills the house with eau de beurre for days after baking it. A variation of the cake, called kuchen buchen in Yiddish, adds cocoa powder to the sweet coating.

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“Just to clarify - I don’t mean to dispute anything you wrote. You are without a doubt more of an expert on Hungarian cuisine than I am. But one of the things that I think makes Jewish cuisine so interesting is how Jewish communities became adapters and transmitters of so many dishes from so many places. Changes and evolutions happened along the way from the original, but to me that’s just part of the beauty of an evolving, mosaic cuisine like Jewish cuisine.”
— Leah K.
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My mother’s childhood memories are perfumed by her mother and grandmother’s cooking. She talks with special whimsy about the aranygaluska cakes her grandmother Lillian baked, bringing a bit of the old country into her Minneapolis kitchen. “It baked up high, over the top of the pan she used,” my mom told me. “My memory is smelling that yeasty cinnamon warmth when she took it out of the oven.”

Unfortunately, my mom, who is a wonderful cook (and incidentally an even better baker), never learned to make aranygaluska. She grew up in Indiana—not terribly far from her grandparents in Minneapolis, but not close enough for regular baking sessions either. And by the time my brother and I came along in the 1980s, she had started to eschew saturated fat and its ilk. With the exception of the occasional corned beef sandwich at the delicatessen (extra lean only, please!) and the jar of cloudy chicken schmaltz she rendered once a year to make matzo balls on Passover, many of the dishes she grew up eating were verboten in our own family’s kitchen—or significantly modified to strip them of their intended fat content.

The Jewish Cookbook Photo by Phaidon

Without its velvet coat of melted butter, aranygaluska is hardly worth making—a shell of its unapologetically and gorgeously decadent self. So when I decided to include a recipe for the cake in my most recent book The Jewish Cookbook, I was at a loss. I inherited my great-grandmother Lillian’s namesake (in Jewish tradition it is common to name a baby with the same name—or same first letter—as a departed family member), but not her recipes, and certainly not her gentle, crinkle-eyed instruction. I have always felt like I missed out on so many important moments with my elders, but nowhere is that feeling more acute than in the kitchen.

My mother talks with special whimsy about the aranygaluska cakes her grandmother Lillian baked, bringing a bit of the old country into her Minneapolis kitchen.

So instead of calling upon my own taste memories, I worked backwards—reverse engineering aranygaluska based on what my mom has told me of hers, with a bit of research assistance from vintage Jewish cookbooks and internet recipes. My take on the cake feels true in spirit, if not exactly in measurements, to my great-grandmother’s version. It is pillowy and rich, the puffed nuggets of dough pulling easily from the whole and filling my tastebuds with cinnamon and the crackle of caramelized sugar. My great-grandmother may never get to taste this cake. But with each bite, I know she’s there.

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  • Julia
    Julia
  • Leah Koenig
    Leah Koenig
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Leah is the author of Modern Jewish Cooking: Recipes & Customs for Today's Kitchen (Chronicle, 2015)

3 Comments

Julia October 16, 2019
Hi Leah!
I'm joining in as the annoying native anxious about their cuisine. I'm sure this is a marvellous recipe but the true, original 'Arany galuska' is not Ashkenazi-Jewish but Hungarian. It has nothing to do with cinnamon. Instead it is rolled in plenty of ground walnut and then heavenly vanilla pudding is poured all over it. Of course, I can imagine a recipe evolving through time and distance, and maybe even the new one comes out better.
I'm very glad that a Hungarian recipe is what connects you to your ancestors whom you couldn't meet. I can completely sympathise with the emotional connection to this cake, my Mom just made me one as my birthday cake.
My only note is if you will write an article and book that will reach many people who wouldn't know the true history and tradition, check your facts.
I'd be very happy to show you the recipe to the original Arany galuska.
 
Author Comment
Leah K. October 16, 2019
Thanks Julia! I appreciate your comment - and yes, it is true that aranygaluska often includes walnuts and is sometimes served with custard. But not always, and not in my mother's family's version. Perhaps my great-grandmother's version was Americanized from the Hungarian version, but I would argue it isn't any less authentic for it. Meanwhile, Hungarian cuisine is a part of Ashkenazi cuisine along with other countries from Central Europe, Eastern Europe, and the Alsatian/German border.
 
Author Comment
Leah K. October 16, 2019
Just to clarify - I don’t mean to dispute anything you wrote. You are without a doubt more of an expert on Hungarian cuisine than I am. But one of the things that I think makes Jewish cuisine so interesting is how Jewish communities became adapters and transmitters of so many dishes from so many places. Changes and evolutions happened along the way from the original, but to me that’s just part of the beauty of an evolving, mosaic cuisine like Jewish cuisine.